I’m sitting here thinking about internet silos, the exhaustion of trying to post all the things in all the places, the relief of not being in an active Kickstarter cycle anymore, how two hummingbirds fencing in mid-air is more exciting than any action film, how much has changed since the WGA went on strike in 2007, what it would look like to write things for my blog and then share them everywhere else rather than trying to tailor things to each channel, how little lust for Instagram I have when I’m not obligated to be there, the Mother Theresa quote on the chalk board in front of this house, the vast gulf between the place I help take care of as a part-time job and this place that I’m looking after for friends, how much love pours out of the funky flooring and flaking windowsills, where I should eat lunch today, how much I need to pee, making physical objects, the power of niche communities, how every industry has its 1% and that 1% colors the public perception of how we do what we do and how so many people really do have no idea how the money shakes out no matter how many times we explain it, the Hooded Oriole who came, long and slender, to the sugar water feeder just ten minutes ago, the oleanders blooming, the possibility of rewilding a large stretch of our property, and building something there in the process, the fact that there are no rules on the blog, the emerging judgement that this is indulgent and pointless, the retaliation that it doesn’t matter, the gift of time, the inclination to capture, even imperfectly, the feeling of swinging on a porch swing while I write and how pleasurable and correct it feels to be writing while in motion, like recording a Ramble while walking, like understanding music through dance, like being in conversation with a friend while you both bob in the surf of the Pacific Ocean.
Bobbie’s on a roll right now.
Social media is built on ambient relationships. You post, you tweet, you share; I read, I listen, I see. Maybe we interact briefly. But I can feel closeness to you without actually having it.
To make things even more complicated, we can exist on both sides—creators and consumers of other people’s thoughts, and each other’s. But so often I see what you’re doing, you see me, but we’re never quite talking to each other.
Four Five! places to poke around when the sight of another bland-looking personal website or social network makes me want to launch my brain into low orbit:
- Multiverse: A CONSTELLATION OF INTERNET CORNERS HELLO HELLO HELLO
- Secret Room Press built a Google Doc guest book for their website and it’s v cute
- Meatspace, the friendly little chat website that pairs outgoing messages with 2-second GIF recordings of participants faces, still exists
- thoughts, a quiet microblogging space
- The joyous surge of personal website action happening on Neocities
I don’t even know that this 90s revival aesthetic is my aesthetic (at least on this go around), but I still love seeing it come back because of what it stands for. It’s reminding me of how much I thought about anonymity as a feature of my early web experiences while reading Better Than IRL. Post-Facebook, it felt as if anonymity became synonymous with cruelty, trolling, and lack of accountability. The real move was to be Extremely Online under one’s own name—especially if one hoped to make a career out of making creative work on the web.
But that stifling trajectory has also led to a culture of fear. Fear of imperfection, fear of unprofessionalism, fear of everything and everyone. I’d forgotten all about the freedom and exuberance of being anonymous. The weirdness. Now it feels like a liberation.
And maybe that’s the root of the fear: if you’re someone who believes people are inherently shitty, then a liberation looks like a return to one’s worst impulses. If you believe in altruism and basic goodness, maybe it’s something better. A weirder web, yes, but also a kinder one.
Even before the Pandemic, I spent a great deal of time finding connection through machines. It was part and parcel of my work, the backbone of my audience and my ability to make a living. But having spent the past year being forced to mediate all my relationships through the internet or the telephone has left me hungry for connection in space in ways I can’t fully articulate.
Don’t get me wrong: I learned so much over the past year. From Kat. From Rachel. From Erika and Danielle and Robin and James and Sarah and Zina and Jez and Tess and Kristen and Vivian and RSS and Wayward and Hyperlink and everyone. I deepened and renewed and began so many friendships. So it’s a little surprising to me that I’ve had barely any interest in opening my laptop or getting on social media in weeks.
The obvious reason is that I’m currently moving out of my home in Portland for good. My days are full of boxes and warehouses and logistics and flaky Craigslist randos. But beyond the chaos of the move, there’s also the fact that in this post-vaccine, pre-moving-to-Ojai-for-the-long-haul moment, I’m being given the chance to reengage with the physical world—with my flesh-and-blood Portland humans who can give each other hugs and cook together and dance and laugh and cry in the same space. It’s commanding absolutely all of my attention.
I don’t even miss the internet. It feels so strange after a year of feeling like it was my lifeline.
I sent a couple tweets into the aether yesterday after not putting anything out on Twitter for about a month. Maybe it was because I’d just worked out and endorphins were careening through my central nervous system and my blood sugar was about to crash, but when I hit the button and sent them off my pulse went through the roof. My palms were sweating. It felt like I was having a panic response to something I used to do three, five, ten times a day.
I caught myself wondering: What is wrong with me?
By and large, I’ve been blessed with a kind, curious audience in the decade I’ve spent on Twitter. There’s about 10,800 people following me these days and I still feel like most of my interactions with them are positive.
I realize this makes me an outlier—especially as a woman.
I’ve never had a tweet go monstrously viral, never been dog-piled by a group of bad actors, never been the target of death threats or widespread abuse. Sometimes I wonder if this is because I am not doing anything truly important with my life, because it seems as if all the people I know who have suffered these indignities are engaged in vital work. If I’m not a target, I must not be taking any risks. If I’m not taking any risks, I must not be making a difference.
(Is this toxic martyrdom? Or just a truth about the world we live in? I’m still not sure. I’m certain there are plenty of people who engage in important change-making quietly, behind the scenes, but I’m still questioning the balance in my own life.)
Over the past month, I’ve only heard about Twitter secondhand, and everything I’ve heard has been negative. I’m not reminded of the occasional jokes or moments of connection with friends around the globe. Instead I hear about having one’s attention hijacked by traumatic media. I hear about the misunderstandings, the feuds, and the constant, deafening noise of millions of people clamoring to be heard. It makes me wonder what I have been doing, generating a feed of thoughts there. Am I truly attempting to provide some kind of service? Or am I feeding tokens into a machine in order to keep a tiny, arbitrary bubble of numbers going up?
I’d only logged on because I wanted to respond to a friend’s request for help promoting her latest project. I love helping my friends, and I try to use whatever weird, relatively minimal clout I’ve amassed online for good, but I also felt strangely resistant. I realized I’d cultivated a perverse sense of pride in seeing the days stack up since my last tweet—like I’d be given a challenge coin for every month I stayed clean.
“It’s just one tweet,” my brain reasoned. “It’s not like you’re going back to using the site all day.” But the fact is: I don’t know how to use Twitter by half measures. I need enough time away to get my brain to release its desperate, grasping attachment to all that activity, to the pressure to keep up and stay in the loop.
Thinking about these questions always brings me back to my friend doreen dodgen-magee and her very good book Deviced. She writes:
What happens when we offload our regulation to internet-enabled devices is, basically, a bait and switch. We need soothing, but we substitute stimulation. We need to get calm and centered; instead we gather more data, input, and dazzling digital experiences. This leaves us dependent on stimulation to distract us and make us think we are actually being soothed. On the contrary, being soothed results in calming and working through the feelings related to dysregulation. When we substitute simple distraction and stimulation for this developed ability, we end up amplifying the dysregulation we are already experiencing and rob ourselves of practice in the important work of bringing ourselves back to a regulated state.
Feeling that panic response tear through my body after so many weeks of calm scared me. It made me realize I’d been engaging in an ecosystem that hadn’t wounded me directly, but still came paired with a constant threat of attack. On a platform of that scale and volatility, every passing thought carries within it the potential for mass distribution, misunderstanding, and destruction.
This isn’t what I want in a channel of communion.
In these quieter spaces, sharing doesn’t come attached to the instinctual certainty that I’ve just kicked a furious ball of snakes.
As Michael Harris writes:
Beyond the sharing, the commenting, the constant thumbs-upping, beyond all that distracting gilt, there are stranger things waiting to be loved.
What stranger things am I loving now?
The other day I was wondering:
The featured snippet that came back at the top of the results rattled my brain for reasons I couldn’t immediately identify.
When I clicked through to the site, long-dormant gears began shifting. It was clearly one of those Internet places that felt unchanged from the early 2000s—the kind of site Robin and I have been yelling enthusiastically at each other about of late—but there was something else. This place was familiar. I’d been here before.
And then it started to come back to me.
I was a member of Halfbakery. Years ago. When? College? High school? If it was high school I was probably using my typical handle. I plugged it into the site’s search bar.
My profile was still there.
I was 15. A baby, all things considered, and one hungry for people who would challenge and excite me. The site was one of those insular places full of smart, sharp users who had developed their own language and culture. Some parts of it, in hindsight, were a bit harsh, others erudite and thrilling. I’d posted two ideas which were roundly downvoted by the community at large, but I kept up as a reader. I won’t pretend I went on to become a cornerstone of the community—because I didn’t—but the site clearly stuck in my memory enough to feel familiar when I found it again.
The kicker isn’t just that it’s still going, but that there’s been relatively little (if any) alteration to the interface since I first encountered it in 2005. I barely recognize Facebook if I log in after an absence of three months, let alone sixteen years. This felt like walking into my childhood bedroom and finding things exactly as I left them.
Because that’s what happens when you run a community for 22 years. Some of your users will probably die. And if you’ve built a sense of camaraderie and mutual regard, their absence will be felt keenly by a collection of strangers who never knew them anywhere other than this niche, textual space.
A little family in the wilderness. What an odd gem of a thing.
Ramble #24 (January 7th, 2021): The 7th anniversary of my arrival on Patreon! Reflections on my first solo Christmas, good quotes about solitude, writing down nice things, thinking about early internet communities, trying out anonymous audio-based support groups, picking a word for the year, stuff about birds. There’s also a bonus recording attached to the original post on Patreon from Tim Dee’s The Running Sky, which is just gorgeous.
Ramble #25 (January 21st, 2021): much shorter. Took a walk. Petted a cat. Tried to figure out how I’ve changed my relationship to being online and whether I could distill that process into replicable steps. (Also, thanks to a truly mystical service Robin turned me onto called Descript, this is the first Ramble with a proper transcript.)
(If you’re universally hot for RSS feeds—and if you’re here, let’s be real, you probably are—you can always subscribe to these directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.)